In 1995 Disney released the film Pocahontas which earnt $346 million at the box office and received two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. In the subsequent years, many began to learn that Pocahontas was based on a real person who was born 400 years before the film’s release – and that her real story may not be quite as the film made it seem. So, who was Pocahontas, and what is the truth behind the legend?
Pocahontas as imagined by Disney vs a portrait of the real Pocahontas engraved the year before her death by Simon van de Passe (1616).
Like many women from the past, Pocahontas’ exact birth year is unknown, but it is generally estimated to be around 1596, as John Smith variously recorded her as being between ten and thirteen when he first met her in 1608. Pocahontas’ father was Chief Wahunsenacawh Powhatan of the Powhatan people who lived in modern-day Virginia. He was a paramount chief of an alliance of around 30 groups and chiefdoms in the Tidewater area. Pocahontas’ mother’s identity remains unknown, although the Powhatan people recount that she died in childbirth and that Pocahontas was named after her mother. Pocahontas was not her true name but either a nickname or one chosen by her at her coming-of-age ceremony to remember her mother; her birth name was Matoaka which means “flower between two streams”.
In 1607, when Pocahontas was just a child, around 100 settlers arrived in Virginia and made a fort named Jamestown. Not long afterwards, one of Jamestown’s leaders, John Smith, was captured by the younger brother of Chief Powhatan. Smith later claimed that it was here that he first met Pocahontas, as she saved his life when her father wanted to execute him. However, his early accounts from 1608 and 1612 do not mention this at all, indicating it was a story he made up – perhaps to invoke more drama, as he first mentioned it in a 1616 letter to Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of the British King. By his early accounts, Smith says he feasted with the tribe and actually met Pocahontas months afterwards – but Pocahontas was soon well-known to the colonists.
Another member of Jamestown, William Strachey, described Pocahontas visiting the fort and playing with the young boys, where they would all do cartwheels together. A further man, Captain Ralph Hamor, said that Pocahontas was her father’s “delight and darling”. Pocahontas was kind to the colonists, and when they began to starve she and her attendants brought provisions to the town.
Far from Smith’s later tales of near-death experience with the Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father actually tried initially to bring Smith and the colonists under his authority, and offered Smith rule of a nearby town called Capahosic. Tensions began to rise within a few years of settlement, however, when the colonists began to expand, threatening the Powhatans. Smith is also said to have threatened surrounding villages, demanding they provide supplies to help the colony survive. Smith was injured by a gunpowder explosion in late 1609 which forced him to return to England for medical care, and the Powhatans were told that he had died. Upon this news, Pocahontas stopped visiting the settlement.
However, there was a more pressing reason why Pocahontas would have stopped visiting the colony. In the summer of that year, conflicts escalated between the colonists and the nearby Native American tribes, with small skirmishes breaking out. In the winter of 1609/10 many of the colonists began to starve to death and plans were made in May 1610 to abandon the colony. However, a man named Thomas West arrived with a fleet and took over rule now that Smith had gone. West had a severe policy towards the Native Americans and decided war and conflict was the only solution.
In July, West gave Chief Powhatan an ultimatum to return captured colonists and their property or face war. When he did not respond, the following month West sent men to attack the capital of the Paspahegh tribe. Around 70 people were killed, and one of the chief’s wives was captured along with her children. Whilst sailing them back to Jamestown, the children were thrown overboard and shot, and the wife was executed in the town. The attack was so devastating the Paspahegh abandoned their town.
In the meantime, young Pocahontas was growing up and it is believed that she married a man named Kocoum, brother of the Patawomeck leader. According to Patawomeck history, Pocahontas and Kocoum had a daughter together named Ka-Okee. However, in 1613 Pocahontas visited the Patawomeck village of Passapatanzy. An Englishman, Captain Samuel Argall, used a translator to persuade the leader of the village to help him capture Pocahontas in return for an alliance. Pocahontas was tricked into boarding one of Argall’s ships where she was then held for ransom.
The capture of Pocahontas was devastating for the Powhatans who immediately called a ceasefire. The colonists demanded that Chief Powhatan return captured colonists and weapons and tools that had been stolen. Chief Powhatan complied, but the colonists deemed that he had not returned a sufficient amount of weapons and tools and so kept hold of Pocahontas. She was held by them for almost a year, staying at Henricus in Chesterfield County. It is around the time of Pocahontas’ capture that it is believed her husband Kocoum was killed by the colonists.
Much of what happened during Pocahontas’ year of captivity is unknown, with both sides claiming a different story; colonist Ralph Hamor said she was treated extremely courteously, whilst Native American oral tradition says that she was raped, perhaps repeatedly. Some historians dispute this, saying that the colonists would not have risked mistreating someone as important as Pocahontas as it would have ruined their negotiations with her father.
What is known is that the minister of the town, Alexander Whitaker, helped her improve her English and instructed her in the teachings of Christianity. She was baptised and took on the new name Rebecca. Whilst in Henricus she also met a man named John Rolfe. He had travelled to Virginia with his wife and child in 1609, but they were caught in a hurricane as they sailed past Bermuda and his wife and child died.
In March 1614, the colonists and the Powhatan had a meeting where Pocahontas was allowed to talk to her father and tribe. An agreement was made whereby Pocahontas would marry John Rolfe in return for peace. They married the following month, marking the first inter-racial union in Virginia. Rolfe wrote a letter to the governor requesting permission for this marriage, where he remarked “Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout”. Pocahontas’ father did not attend the marriage for fear of being captured or killed, but he sent her a pearl necklace as a gift.
Pocahontas and John lived at John’s plantation Varina Farms which was across the river from the town of Henricus, and in 1615 they had a son named Thomas. Their marriage was successful in finally bringing about peace between the colonists and the Powhatan and became known as the “Peace of Pocahontas”. As a result of Pocahontas’ conversion to Christianity, and the subsequent peace with the Native Americans, she was seen as an excellent opportunity for publicity by the Virginia Company of London. As such, they requested the couple come to England, and Pocahontas arrived in Plymouth with her husband, son, and 11 Powhatans in June 1616. It was here that she learnt her old friend John Smith was still alive and living in London, although they did not meet until the following year. Her arrival is what sparked Smith’s letter to Queen Anne, the wife of King James VI & I, urging Pocahontas be treated with respect – and giving his wild claims of his first meeting with her.
Pocahontas was indeed treated as a guest of honour and taken to numerous social events. In January 1617 she was even brought before King James in the Palace of Whitehall – although Smith claimed that James’ presence was unimpressive and Pocahontas did not realise who she had met until afterwards. Given his other exaggerations, the truth of this must be questioned.
In England, Pocahontas was given the status of a princess, as her father was an important chief and so they were trying to give her what they considered appropriate status for an important woman. It was recorded that the bishop of London entertained her with much greater festivity and pomp than any other lady he had entertained. Some have questioned the authenticity of this reverence, however, suggesting that the attention Pocahontas received was more due to her being shown around as a curiosity.
In March 1617, Pocahontas and her family set sail to return to Virginia, but they hadn’t even reached the end of the river Thames when Pocahontas became fatally ill. What she was struck with is unknown, but she died shortly after probably aged just 21. Her funeral took place on the 21st March in Gravesend, but her tomb has subsequently been lost as the church was destroyed by fire in 1727. The members of the Powhatan tribe who were with her said that she had been in good health until she had a dinner with her husband and Argall, the man who had initially kidnapped her. They said that after the meal she was sick and she died soon after, leading to suspicion that she had been poisoned.
Pocahontas’ son with John Rolfe survived and married, and he had a daughter named Jane, who also had children. Many claim descent from Pocahontas, including First Lady Edith Wilson. Her story was embellished and romanticised after her death, including by her friend John Smith who used it to try and make money. By the nineteenth century, stories began that Smith and Pocahontas were romantically involved, and this was included by Disney in their retelling. In 1907 for the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, a stamp was issued with Pocahontas on, making her the first Native American to appear on a US stamp.
Pocahontas had a short life but she lived through a crucial part of British and American history and managed to shape it herself. As a child of an important Native American Chief, she made friends with colonists in Jamestown and ultimately converted to Christianity and the colonists’ way of living. She sailed to England and met the King, a great honour for many, and she left a legacy behind her – both through her descendants, through the temporary peace she brought about in Virginia, and through literature, art and film.
She became a legend, spurred in part by the effort of a man she knew who wished to have fame, and some may argue her Native American legacy has been somewhat erased by the questioning of indigenous oral history which recounts her first husband, first child, and her mistreatment by the colonists. What Pocahontas thought about her relationship with her tribe and the colonists and her subsequent portrayal in popular culture will never be known. But it is important to remember that amongst the stories, exaggerations and legend, a real woman lived her life.
Previous Blog Post: An Interview With: Sharon Bennett Connolly, Historical Author
Previous in Legendary People: Elizabeth Báthory – Mass Murderer, Vampire, Innocent?
Check out my history book recommendations on Bookshop UK.